Gila County’s dangerous surge in COVID cases has leveled off, but remains far higher than the state and national averages.
However, new infections in Payson’s four school campuses jumped 59% from Tuesday to Wednesday, as the district caught up with new cases contracted over the long holiday weekend.
In the past two weeks, Arizona has reported a 4% increase in average daily new cases. The state’s infection rate is 43 per 100,000 — just above the national average of 40 per 100,000. By contrast, the hot spot states have infection rates between 50 and 107 per 100,000, including South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Wyoming, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia. Most of those states have vaccination rates far below the national average.
Gila County still had the second highest infection rate in the state early this week — 72 per 100,000 — nearly twice the state average. This reflects a relatively low vaccination rate. However, the number of new cases has actually declined by 4% as a daily average over the past two weeks. Only neighboring Graham County had a higher infection rate at 106 per 100,000.
Payson had the highest number of new cases in the county in the period from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 — 85 out of the 267 non-reservation cases in the county. Pine had five, Star Valley two and Tonto Basin three.
Countywide, 91 of the new cases were reported among people younger than 19 — a sharp contrast to the last spike in cases in January.
The Gila County Health Department has now scheduled a vaccination clinic at Payson High School in Wilson Dome for Sept. 15. To schedule an appointment call 928-910-4001, option 1. Teenagers aged 12 to 17 can now get the shot, but must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Schools continue to struggle with the impact of the Delta variant, which spreads readily among children — although it’s much less likely to cause serious illness in the young. However, this year the virus has spread from child to child on campus in Payson — which means it can then spread from school out into the community.
As of Wednesday, 108 students and 12 staff have tested positive. That represents a 59% jump between Tuesday and Wednesday when the district updated the numbers from the holiday weekend. So while the number of new cases has slowed in the community, infections in the schools continue to accelerate.
Another 786 students and three staff now rank as close contact — an increase of 200 student close contacts between Tuesday and Wednesday. All those students must quarantine for 10 days, according to the new district policy on close contacts. Some of those close contacts may be double-counted if they had close contact with more than one infected student.
Unvaccinated students and faculty who are close contacts must quarantine for 10 days. However, people who have gotten their shots can continue to attend class so long as they don’t develop COVID symptoms.
Fortunately, the increasing number of clusters on campus pose a much greater risk for unvaccinated teachers, staff and family members than for the kids themselves, according to a growing body of research on the impact of COVID infections on children.
That’s why the federal Centers for Disease Control has concluded that in-person class remains safe — providing schools take precaution like requiring masks indoors when students can’t socially distance. However, the Arizona Legislature has barred districts from requiring masks — or requiring teachers and staff to get vaccinated.
The Delta variant has put a question mark alongside some of the reassuring research on COVID and kids. Kids account for a much higher percentage of cases now. However, that could simply reflect vaccination rates among adults. Only 9% of Gila County residents younger than 20 are vaccinated, compared to 55% of those 55 to 64 and 71% of those older than 65. The county’s teen vaccination rate is about half the statewide average.
So here’s some of the recent research on why kids so rarely get seriously ill and how schools can operate safely. Most of these examples come from a research review published in the scientific journal Nature.
• COVID accounted for just 25 deaths among people younger than 18 in England between March of 2020 and February of 2021. About half of those deaths involved children with underlying problems, such as use of a feeding tube or trouble breathing. That compares to 3,105 total deaths among teens and children, which means the COVID death rate for children was 2 per million.
• A study of COVID-related deaths among children in seven countries documented 231 deaths between March 2020 and February 2021. The U.S. has reported 471 deaths among teens and children as of June.
• An analysis of 57 studies in 19 countries found a very low risk of death among children with COVID, although things like obesity, heart problems or neurological conditions increased the risk. The team looked at 6,338 hospital admissions for COVID and found 259 children and teens treated in intensive care units.
• Children apparently avoid serious illness because they rely on what’s called the “innate immune system.” This immune system response relies more heavily on fast-acting, generalized cells triggered by interferon. Adults have a slower, more specialized immune response that relies on the memory cells of the immune system. Those studies suggest children do develop high viral loads and can therefore pass the infection along — but their fast-acting immune response apparently works better against COVID.
• Doctors still worry about long-COVID symptoms that develop in about 14% of young people who test positive for the virus. In addition, some 3 out of 10,000 infected children and teens develop MIS-C, with often serious and sometimes fatal side effects. The inflammatory reaction may stem from an immune system over-reaction to an infection — in both children and adults.
• Worldwide, some 770 million children were still not in school full time by the end of June 2021. Some 150 million children in 19 countries had no access to online learning when schools closed. An estimated 24 million children will simply drop out of school before finishing as a result of the pandemic, according to estimates by the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO.
• A study in the U.S. tracked 90,000 students and teachers in North Carolina for nine weeks last autumn. Based on the community rate of transmission, researchers would have expected to see 900 cases in that population. Instead, schools reported just 32 cases. That picture may have changed now that the Delta variant has become established nationwide.
• A study of 17 schools in rural Wisconsin documented 191 COVID cases in staff and students in a 13-week period last autumn. Only 7 of those cases appeared to have originated on campus — as opposed to students who got infected at home.
• Researchers in Norway conducted exhaustive testing of 13 confirmed COVID cases in children aged 5-13 in school. The researchers tested 300 of their close contacts. They found that about 1% of the child close contacts and 2% of the adult close contacts got infected — although that was before Delta entered the scene.
• A study in Salt Lake City tested 700 students and staff who had come in contact with 51 positive cases among students. Just 12 of those close contacts tested positive. Only five of the 12 infections were school-related — suggesting that students don’t readily spread the virus at school. However, the schools in question took protective measures, like requiring masks and social distancing.
• A study in Israel found the virus spread quickly on campus when school relaxed protective measures. Two students had 1,200 close contacts. Between 13% and 17% of those contacts tested positive. The cluster developed in May 2020, before vaccines slowed the rate of spread — but also before Delta. The outbreak took place during a heat wave when schools allowed students to stop wearing masks and shut the doors and windows to use the air conditioning — which recirculated the air.
• Studies in Germany, France, Ireland, Australia, Singapore and the U.S. have all shown very low rates of spread on school campuses — particularly with the use of masks, social distancing and circulation of fresh air in classrooms.